The harmonica, also known as a French harp or mouth organ, is a free reed wind instrument used worldwide in many musical genres, notably in blues, American folk music, classical music, jazz, country, and rock. The many types of harmonica include diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, octave, orchestral, and bass versions. A harmonica is played by using the mouth (lips and tongue) to direct air into or out of one (or more) holes along a mouthpiece. Behind each hole is a chamber containing at least one reed. The most common is the diatonic Richter-tuned with ten air passages and twenty reeds, often called the blues harp. A harmonica reed is a flat, elongated spring typically made of brass, stainless steel, or bronze, which is secured at one end over a slot that serves as an airway. When the free end is made to vibrate by the player's air, it alternately blocks and unblocks the airway to produce sound.
An important technique in performance is bending, causing a drop in pitch by making embouchure adjustments. Bending isolated reeds is possible, as on chromatic and other harmonica models with wind-savers, but also to both lower, and raise (overbend, overblow, overdraw) the pitch produced by pairs of reeds in the same chamber, as on a diatonic or other unvalved harmonica. Such two-reed pitch changes actually involve sound production by the normally silent reed, the opening reed (for instance, the blow reed while the player is drawing).
Dispute exists among players about whether comb material affects the tone of a harmonica. Those saying no argue that unlike the soundboard of a piano or the top piece of a violin or guitar, a harmonica's comb is neither large enough nor able to vibrate freely enough to substantially augment or change the sound. Among those saying yes are those who are convinced by their ears. Few dispute that comb surface smoothness and air tightness when mated with the reed plates can greatly affect tone and playability. The main advantage of a particular comb material over another one is its durability. In particular, a wooden comb can absorb moisture from the player's breath and contact with the tongue. This can cause the comb to expand slightly, making the instrument uncomfortable to play, and to then contract, potentially compromising air tightness. Various types of wood and treatments have been devised to reduce the degree of this problem.
An even more serious problem with wooden combs, especially in chromatic harmonicas (with their thin dividers between chambers), is that, as the combs expand and shrink over time, cracks can form in the combs, because the comb is held immobile by nails, resulting in disabling leakage. Serious players devote significant effort to restoring wood combs and sealing leaks. Some players used to soak wooden-combed harmonicas (diatonics, without wind-savers) in water to cause a slight expansion, which they intended to make the seal between the comb, reed plates, and covers more airtight. Modern wooden-combed harmonicas are less prone to swelling and contracting, but modern players still dip their harmonicas in water for the way it affects tone and ease of bending notes.
Wind-savers are one-way valves made from thin strips of plastic, knit paper, leather, or Teflon glued to the reed plate. They are typically found in chromatic harmonicas, chord harmonicas, and many octave-tuned harmonicas. Wind-savers are used when two reeds share a cell and leakage through the nonplaying reed would be significant. For example, when a draw note is played, the valve on the blow reed-slot is sucked shut, preventing air from leaking through the inactive blow reed. An exception to this is the now-discontinued Hohner XB-40, on which valves are placed not to isolate single reeds, but rather to isolate entire chambers from being active, a design that made playing traditional blues bends possible on all reeds.
The mouthpiece is placed between the air chambers of the instrument and the player's mouth. This can be integral with the comb (the diatonic harmonicas; the Hohner Chrometta); part of the cover (as in Hohner's CX-12); or may be a separate unit, secured by screws, which is typical of chromatics. In many harmonicas, the mouthpiece is purely an ergonomic aid designed to make playing more comfortable. In the traditional slider-based chromatic harmonica, it is essential to the functioning of the instrument because it provides a groove for the slide.
Since the 1950s, many blues harmonica players have amplified their instrument with microphones and tube amplifiers. One of the early innovators of this approach was Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs, who played the harmonica near a "Bullet" microphone marketed for use by radio taxi dispatchers. This gave his harmonica tone a "punchy" midrange sound that could be heard above an electric guitar. Also, tube amplifiers produce a natural growling overdrive when cranked at higher volumes, which adds body, fullness, and "grit" to the sound. Little Walter also cupped his hands around the instrument, tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, somewhat reminiscent of a saxophone, hence the term "Mississippi saxophone". Some harmonica players in folk use a regular vocal microphone, such as a Shure SM 58, for their harmonica, which gives a clean, natural sound.
As technology in amplification has progressed, harmonica players have introduced other effects units to their rigs, as well, such as reverb, tremolo, delay, octave, additional overdrive pedals, and chorus effect. John Popper of Blues Traveler uses a customized microphone that encapsulates several of these effects into one handheld unit, as opposed to several units in sequence. Many harmonica players still prefer tube amplifiers to solid-state ones, owing to the perceived difference in tone generated by the vacuum tubes. Players perceive tubes as having a "warmer" tone and a more "natural" overdrive sound. Many amplifiers designed for electric guitar are also used by harmonica players, such as the Kalamazoo Model Two, Fender Bassman, and the Danelectro Commando. Some expensive handmade boutique amplifiers are built from the ground up with characteristics that are optimal for amplified harmonica.
Harmonica players who play the instrument while performing on another instrument with their hands (e.g., an acoustic guitar) often use an accessory called a neck rack or harmonica holder to position the instrument in front of their mouth. A harmonica holder clamps the harmonica between two metal brackets, which are attached to a curved loop of metal that rests on the shoulders. The original harmonica racks were made from wire or coat hangers. Models of harmonica racks vary widely by quality and ease of use, and experimenting with more than one model of harmonica rack is often needed to find one that feels suitable for each individual player. This device is used by folk musicians, one-man bands, and singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Edoardo Bennato, Tom Harmon, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and blues singers Jimmy Reed and John Hammond Jr.
Horn harmonicas are available in several pitch ranges, with the lowest pitched starting two octaves below middle C and the highest beginning on middle C itself; they usually cover a two- or three-octave range. They are chromatic instruments and are usually played in an East Asian harmonica orchestra instead of the "push-button" chromatic harmonica that is more common in the European and American tradition. Their reeds are often larger, and the enclosing "horn" gives them a different timbre, so that they often function in place of a brass section. In the past, they were referred to as horn harmonicas.
The chord harmonica has up to 48 chords: major, seventh, minor, augmented and diminished for ensemble playing. It is laid out in four-note clusters, each sounding a different chord on inhaling or exhaling. Typically each hole has two reeds for each note, tuned to one octave of each other. Less expensive models often have only one reed per note. Quite a few orchestra harmonicas are also designed to serve as both bass and chord harmonica, with bass notes next to chord groupings. There are also other chord harmonicas, such as the Chordomonica (which operates similar to a chromatic harmonica), and the junior chord harmonicas (which typically provide six chords).
The Suzuki SSCH-56 Compact Chord harmonica is a 48-chord harmonica built in a 14-hole chromatic harmonica enclosure. The first three holes play a major chord on blow and draw, with and without the slide. Holes 2, 3, and 4 play a diminished chord; holes 3, 4, and 5 play a minor chord; and holes 4, 5, and 6 play an augmented, for a total of sixteen chords. This pattern is repeated starting on hole 5, a whole step higher; and again starting on hole 9, for a total of 48 chords.
The ChengGong harmonica has a main body, and a sliding mouthpiece. The body is a 24-hole diatonic harmonica that ranges from B2 to D6 (covering 3 octaves). Its 11-hole mouthpiece can slide along the front of the harmonica, which gives numerous chord choices and voicings (seven triads, three 6th chords, seven 7th chords, and seven 9th chords, for a total of 24 chords). As well, it is capable of playing single-note melodies and double stops over a range of three diatonic octaves. Unlike conventional harmonicas, blowing and drawing produce the same notes because its tuning is closer to the note layout of a typical East Asian tremolo harmonica or the Polyphonias.
The pitch pipe is a simple specialty harmonica that provides a reference pitch to singers and other instruments. The only difference between some early pitch-pipes and harmonicas is the name of the instrument, which reflected the maker's target audience. Chromatic pitch pipes, which are used by singers and choirs, give a full chromatic (12-note) octave. Pitch pipes are also sold for string players, such as violinists and guitarists; these pitch pipes usually provide the notes corresponding to the open strings. 2b1af7f3a8